In the wake of the interview about her role in the death and disappearance of Belfast widow and mother-of-ten, Jean McConville, Dolours Price told me that in subsequent years one of those assigned by the IRA to dig the Belfast widow’s grave on the shores of Carlingford Lough was exposed as an informer working for the Garda Special Branch.
He was however spared the same fate as Jean McConville by virtue of his father’s status as a senior and respected figure in the Co. Louth IRA. He was drummed out of the organisation but escaped with his life, thanks to his father’s intervention.
Dolours Price could not say when the gravedigger was recruited by the Gardai, whether this was before Jean McConville’s ‘disappearance’ or afterwards.
Dolours Price’s allegation, if true, raises a number of troubling questions, not least how much did the Special Branch know of Jean McConville’s murder, did they know who had been involved in it, where her body had been hidden and the most pressing question of all: why was this information not passed on so that her remains could be returned to her family?
The grim and unforgiving rules of agent-running suggest that the Special Branch would likely have placed protection of their source ahead of considerations for the McConville family.
Intelligence agencies around the world are obsessed with protecting sources and methods and that means never releasing information that would confirm the identity of an agent even if his or her cover has been blown. The Garda Special Branch would not be an exception to this iron rule.
The other side of the argument is equally compelling. If what Dolours Price alleged is true, the McConville’s are entitled to ask what is the point in running agents if the information they provide is not used to do good, in this case by returning their mother’s remains? Equally they could ask was it not possible for the Special Branch to marshall its talents to devise a low risk way of using the intelligence they had?
It stands to reason that one way or another the Gardai would have learned something about the death of Jean McConville over the years. IRA activity in the Louth area was largely geared to providing support to the units across the Border and it was in the IRA’s interests to otherwise keep a relatively low profile.
The arrival of a suspected informer along with three senior figures from Belfast, on two trips, culminating in an execution and secret burial would likely have been a matter of excited gossip amongst IRA activists in the area and eventually this would have made its way to the Special Branch, not least via its network of informers.
As it was, according to Dolours Price’s telling, the Gardai may have had a more direct source telling them about the tragic and bloody events on Shelling Beach.
The affair also highlights a glaring inconsistency in the IRA’s attitude towards informers or others who have broken the organisation’s rules – once uncovered an informer’s fate was not always predetermined and could sometimes depend on who they were and if they had friends or relatives in high places.